At times during the past few seasons, I've been accused of being too negative regarding the Maryland men's basketball program. Some complaints have come from the program's Kool-Aid-drinkers -- the type of supporters who would be defensive even if the team was 2-8 and coming off a home loss to Presbyterian. Others have come from more level-headed supporters of the program who think I should speak more about the progress it's made than the heights it's failed to reach.
I haven't always been negative. In fact, Maryland's wins against Iowa State and Wisconsin and its pair of wins versus Michigan State during the 2014-15 season elicited true emotion from this childhood-Maryland-fan-turned-mediocre-columnist.
Context has been a necessary part of my Maryland criticism during the last couple of seasons. I believe the school originally hired head coach Mark Turgeon (and re-upped him in 2016) with the goal of being a competitor on the national level annually. And through his first 5.5 seasons, Turgeon's teams have only sporadically flirted with that level of competition.
But after starting 16-2 overall in Turgeon's sixth season, my feelings about the state of the Maryland men's basketball program are actually starting to shift somewhat significantly. I genuinely believe this team is on the cusp of competing significantly at the national level.
However, that isn't to say I think it's a dark-horse candidate to make a Final Four run this season. That seems rather unlikely with a young group that doesn't have any particular player who is a safe bet to go on a tear of scoring 25-plus points per game for three weekends. No, it's more that I've seen enough from the freshmen trio of guards Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter and forward Justin Jackson to think they'll be the nucleus of Maryland's next very good basketball team.
The talent is obvious. Cowan was brilliant down the stretch during Maryland's come-from-behind win at Illinois Jan. 14. Huerter has hit big shots all season, including a huge 3-pointer during the win at Michigan Jan. 7. Jackson has shown the ability to play tough inside and hit big outside shots. They've all stepped up in big spots on multiple occasions only 18 games into their college careers.
It's a unique set of circumstances. The trio is both young and talented, but none appear to be so good that there is much of a risk of them leaving College Park, Md., any time soon. (NBADraft.net does not see any of the three as draft-worthy this year or next.) What they're learning from game to game is invaluable for future seasons. And what they're doing now has been enjoyable to watch, considering the tempered expectations Maryland fans had for this season.
If Turgeon and his staff can surround the trio with another special player or two while they're together at Maryland, this could be the group that finally does get Maryland to that true level of national competition.
Or maybe I'm crazy. I discussed this with former Indiana and Bowling Green head coach Dan Dakich during a
Glenn Clark Radio interview
Jan. 10. Dakich, of course, is now a popular analyst for ESPN who has already worked three Maryland TV broadcasts this season. He buys into the trio from a talent perspective but believes at least one could have the chance to depart early.
"I think the Jackson kid is going to have to make a decision, depending on how the rest of this year goes," Dakich said. "This Jackson kid has a chance to [go pro] ... has a real chance at some point. I don't know what that point is, but he looks like a pro; he went and made plays down the stretch against Michigan. He's going to have to make a decision. But, 1,000 percent, I can see this team growing; I could see this team growing together. And I think that's pretty exciting.
"And the thing about Maryland's kids that I really like is they're fearless. Like, Huerter wasn't making much, and then, all of a sudden, with a minute and a half to go, he looks up and hits a big ol' corner three against Michigan on the road. Cowan makes free throws, and Jackson makes a big three-point play. That tells me, 'Wait a second now, these aren't just guys, these are real guys.' And yeah, if they all stick together, you've got something nice going on -- really nice."
Really nice indeed. The type of foundation that can turn into a battle-tested veteran team that is prepared for a deep run in the NCAA tournament in 2018 or 2019 when surrounded by the right pieces. Keep in mind there's no guarantee guard Melo Trimble won't return for his senior season next year as well. And there's no certainty this team can't accomplish anything of significance this year -- it just seems less likely. But every ounce of experience it takes from this season could shape potential future accomplishments.
There's something potentially special about this group. I know I've been cynical, but if there's anything left in that Kool-Aid jug, please feel free to pass it down.